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Goodbye, McMansions: Americans Buying ‘Right-Sized’ Homes

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By Amy Hoak

Top 5 in Real Estate Network, February 2009– (MCT) – These days, a bigger home isn’t always a better one. Recent research suggests that homes being built today are getting smaller.

The average size of homes started in the third quarter of 2008 was 2,438 square feet, down from 2,629 square feet in the second quarter, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Similarly, the median size of homes started in the third quarter was 2,090, down from 2,291. The statistics confirm what the housing industry has suspected for a while.

“We’ve been hearing for a long time ‘Why is the home size not declining?’” said Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president of economic research for the National Association of Home Builders. He spoke about the trend at the International Builders’ Show, held in Las Vegas last week. Anecdotally, he had heard smaller homes were being built as housing prices tumbled and the economy began to weaken. Still, “we never had data to back it up,” he said.

Gayle Butler, editor-in-chief of Better Homes and Gardens, said for many homeowners, it is not so much a matter of downsizing as “right-sizing,” giving up big homes with unused space and buying a home that better fits their needs. “Either by necessity or choice, they’re willing to take a step back from the McMansions,” she said at the Builders’ Show. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the magazine, 32% of participants said they expected their new home to be either somewhat smaller or much smaller than the one they already live in, she said. The magazine’s online study involved 733 potential new-home buyers.

Builders are responding to those consumer desires. According to the National Association of Home Builders, 88% of builders surveyed in January said they are building or planning to build a larger share of smaller homes. Eighty-nine percent said they’re planning on building more lower-priced models.

As homes get smaller, homeowners are looking to economize the space they do have. Butler says she is seeing more interest in “Wii-sized spaces”-family rooms that are flexible enough to accommodate a variety of activities, from video games to fitness systems. Outdoor spaces aren’t being wasted either and outdoor kitchens and entertaining areas continue to rise in popularity, she said.

According to the Better Homes and Gardens study, top priorities in a new home include an affordable price, natural light and comfortable family gathering places. The era of super-sizing may be ending, Butler said, with buyers looking for a home that is “right-sized, organized and economized.”

Other consumer housing trends include:

Fewer luxuries. Consumers say they need fewer luxuries in their next home, Butler said. Twenty percent or more of the participants in the survey viewed upgraded landscaping, upgraded finishes such as granite countertops, and luxurious master suites as less important in their next home, she said. High ceilings in main living areas were less important to 35% of those surveyed. There are also fewer fireplaces in new homes: While 62% of new homes completed in 1991 had at least one fireplace in it, 51% had a fireplace in 2007, according to Census statistics.

Green elements. Ninety percent of those who participated in the Better Homes and Gardens survey said they’re planning to have energy-efficient heating and cooling systems in their next home and 31% plan to have geo-thermal heat, Butler said. There has also been increased interest in home gardens, with more people wanting to know where their food is grown, said Robin Avni, senior director and consumer strategist for the firm Iconoculture, a cultural trend research firm. “The green theme touches everything in the home, from the food we look to consume, our health concerns in the home, building-even our furnishings in the home,” Avni said.

Getting organized. With smaller spaces, organization systems are continuing their popularity. More entryways are being outfitted for storage, and homeowners often want more functional use of wall space, Butler said. Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed by the magazine said no-space-wasted design and ample storage will take on more importance in their next home.

Practical appliances. Although sales of appliances have been down, freezer sales have been up. The reason: More people are shopping for bargains and freezing what they won’t use right away. “Appliance sales have taken a hit … except the freezer. Which is really all about going back to basics, a very practical kind of living,” Avni said. “If you look at your parents and your grandparents, they used to have a freezer-they used to buy stuff on sale and put it in the freezer and use it for later. It wasn’t just run out and buy something that day.”

© 2009, MarketWatch.com Inc.

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